Now in its eighth year, over 200,000 students have participated in the Irish Life Health Schools’ Fitness Challenge, making it the largest study on the fitness of secondary school children in Ireland.
— By Prof Niall Moyna
We have analysed the results of the Schools’ Fitness Challenge since 2011, and alarming trends are emerging. The first is the large drop in the number of children participating in the fitness challenge after Junior Cert.
The latest results reveal that participation in the Schools Fitness Challenge drops by a staggering 80% after third year. Nearly 9,000 13-year-olds participated in 2018 compared to a meagre 1,300 17-year olds.
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It is baffling that we don’t understand the importance of fitness for children’s long-term brain health and academic performance. There are several international studies which show that exercise reduces stress levels, improves concentration and positively impacts academic performance. The findings from a 2014 study that tracked over 80,000 students found that children who significantly improved their fitness over a five-year period improved their academic performance compared to children whose fitness levels did not change¹.
Another major concern is the decrease in fitness levels among girls from first year to sixth year. There has been a steady increase in the number of 16 to 18 year olds who are not meeting the minimum level of fitness required for optimal health. A low level of cardiovascular fitness is related to an increased risk for chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, some forms of cancer, obesity, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and non-alcohol fatty liver.
Considering that most health behaviours such as smoking, physical inactivity and alcohol consumption are adopted by the age of 20, and track into adulthood, every effort should be made to promote physical activity and cardiovascular fitness among teenagers.
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Parents need to appreciate the strong link between childhood fitness and physical and mental health. Exercise should be viewed as Medicine. Indeed, if exercise could be prescribed as a pill, it would be the most prescribed drug on the planet, and many parents who write excuse notes for PE are denying their children access to this ‘wonder-drug’.
The Irish Life Health Schools’ Fitness Challenge clearly demonstrates that a short-term exercise intervention significantly improves the cardiovascular fitness of children. Since 2013, we have found that girls and boys who participate in the six-week fitness challenge improve their fitness by an average of 10%.
I believe that many adolescents have poor health literacy, they fail to see the connection between their health behaviours and their current and future health. A new innovative health science curriculum in secondary school is urgently needed. The curriculum should ideally combine elements of home economics, physical education and human biology and should require each student to develop and update a health portfolio throughout their time in secondary school.
As a nation we need a paradigm shift in our approach to ‘HEALTHCARE’. Instead of managing the implications of lifestyle-related chronic diseases, our goal should be prevention. With research consistently showing that cardiorespiratory fitness is one of the best indicators of current and future health surveillance of cardiorespiratory fitness should be mandatory in secondary schools.
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We must remember there is ‘no one size fits all’ when it comes to physical activity. It is important that children are exposed to activities that they enjoy. If a child prefers a walk to a sport or team-based activity, this should be encouraged. Importantly, children who are the least active and most unfit will obtain the greatest improvements in fitness and health by participating in regular physical activity.
¹J Adolesc Health. 2014 December: The Effects of Changes in Physical Fitness on Academic Performance among New York City Youth.
The Irish Life Health Schools’ Fitness Challenge is a national health initiative designed to assess and improve fitness levels among secondary students in Ireland with the aim of improving overall health. The programme measures cardiorespiratory fitness (CRF). Low CRF increases the risk of developing cardiovascular disease (CVD), while improving CRF is associated with a reduced risk of developing chronic diseases such as Diabetes, Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease .
Cardiorespiratory fitness is the ability of the body’s circulatory and respiratory systems to supply fuel and oxygen during sustained physical activity. It is a good indicator of how much physical activity you routinely perform.